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Jørn Utzon, 1966. Image: F. Murray/Fairfax Syndication

Utzon resigns

With the riddle of how to build the shells now solved, Stage Two and the construction of the roof began in 1963. This phase took three years, but as the building came together, relations between Utzon and the NSW Government fell apart. Politicians grew concerned about the building’s mounting costs and some sought to turn the problems to their own political advantage. Utzon maintained his insistence on maintaining complete control over his building so as to ensure his vision would be achieved. As the vaulted sails took shape, Bennelong Point became a battle ground of politics, pragmatism and the quest for perfection. Ultimately one of these was to yield to the others.

Matters began to turn against Utzon in 1962. His Spherical Solution for the roof  had been approved but the cost of the building – estimated at just 3.5 million pounds when construction began in 1959 – was increasing. By the middle of 1962, the estimated cost had hit 13.7 million pounds. Norman Ryan, the Minister for Public Works, to whom Joseph Cahill had entrusted the Opera House from his death bed, stepped up supervision of Utzon. Instructions by the government in 1963 to change the seating arrangements in the main hall increased the pressure on the architect and tensions grew between the architect and his engineers. 

“The break between Utzon and the Government is beyond repair.”
Michael Lewis, Partner of Arup, 1966.

With Ove Arup stepping back from the project as he prepared for retirement, responsibility was handed to the partner in charge of Arup’s Sydney Office, Michael Lewis. By 1964 Lewis began raising concerns about Utzon’s ability to deliver the huge volume of drawings needed for the interiors that were to be built in Stage Three. Ryan demanded that Utzon produce the drawings, but Utzon said these drawings could not be provided until he had prototyped the innovative plywood beams he planned to use to support the ceilings and the glass exteriors walls.

In May 1965 the government  changed. After 24 years of Labor rule, R.W Askin’s Liberal party formed a Coalition with Davis Hugh’s Country party. Given his strained relations with the Labor Minister for Public Work, Norman Ryan, Utzon was initially hopeful. It was instead the beginning of the end of his involvement in the project.

Having campaigned on a platform of reining in costs at the Opera House, Davis Hughes made himself the project’s master by giving himself the Public Works portfolio. Three months after taking office, Hughes declared that Utzon would henceforth only be paid for producing drawings. By the end of 1965, Utzon needed 60,000 pounds to build the prototypes he needed to test the large, plywood beams that would be suspended from the soffits of the shell’s arches to support the ceiling as well as the plywood munnions that would support the glass walls. Asked for advice by Hughes, Arup’s engineers, who were more used to working with steel, questioned whether the plywood scheme would work.

The fight over the plywood mock-ups turned into an impasse. Without the prototypes, Utzon could not proceed with the drawings of the Opera House’s interiors, known as Stage Three. Without the drawings, Hughes was able to stop payments to Utzon.

At noon on 28 February, 1966, Utzon met Davis Hughes at his Ministerial office in Bridge Street. Utzon had intended to discuss a 51,626 pound fee he was owed for managing the stage machinery contracts, which had been outstanding for four months.  He also pressed Hughes about the money needed for the plywood mock-ups. Hughes said he could not make a decision and cited the adverse report from Arup. Utzon threatened to quit, to which Hughes replied ‘You are always threatening to quit...’ Feeling provoked, Utzon walked out. The meeting had lasted barely 15 minutes.  

Hours later Utzon’s secretary hand-delivered a letter to Hughes in which Utzon accused the Minister of forcing him out. Hughes immediately made arrangements  for an Opera House without Utzon’s further involvement and sought assurances from the engineers and the builders that they would continue on the project. Having been assured they would, Hughes told the press that evening and then Parliament the next day that Utzon had resigned. 

Utzon’s resignation caused an unprecedented outcry. There were letters of protest from eminent artists, designers and intellectuals from across the globe. On 3 March, 1000 people marched on State Parliament  through the streets of Sydney led by architect Harry Seidler, author Patrick White and others, who demanded that Utzon be reinstated. A further rally organised by a group that called itself  ‘Utzon-in-Charge’ was held and a petition of 3000 signatures was delivered to Premier Askin.

Utzon describes his design for the glass walls in time lapse Image: Jozef Vissel

The Interiors

Utzon had intended to use plywood throughout the interior of the opera House, floors, seat shells, ceilings and corridors. He also planned to use plywood to support the glass walls, which would be protected from the weather by bronze. Weight-for-weight, plywood is as strong as steel and would have provided a warm contrast with the concrete.

In designing the glass walls Utzon was inspired by the movement of a seagull’s wing as it lifts and falls in flight. He illustrated the principle with a photograph of a gull in his interview with Zodiac magazine. 

All through this time the building work continued. Utzon maintained he was the only person for the job, but he was reluctant to return to the reduced role that Hughes offered him – that of a subordinate consultant.

In a confidential telegram dated March 10, 1966, Jack Zunz, the senior partner at Arup in London overseeing the building of the shells, pleaded with Utzon to reconsider. “I know it is very late for me to plead with you. I don’t care how difficult you or anyone else’s position, but possibility of Opera House without you is bleak to contemplate. Over many years you have not spared yourself nor have you spared others who you have stimulated with your conception and you cannot ditch them at this stage. Even if you have to make what appears to you to be a bad compromise, please at least give it a try.”

But Utzon was unmoved. Michael Lewis, the partner in charge of Arup’s Sydney office expressed remorse for how his own relations with Utzon had become strained.

“It seems now that the break between Utzon and the Government is beyond repair and Davis Hughes has closed the door to further negotiation,” Lewis wrote to Ove Arup and Jack Zunz on March 18, 1966. “I have the feeling that Utzon wanted to accept their terms but was too proud to say it directly. .. In spite of my previous distrust and misgivings concerning Utzon, I feel terribly sad for his sake at having to give up us this project after so many years.”

On 19 April 1966 Davis Hughes appointed a new panel of Australian architects to complete the Opera House:  Peter Hall would be in charge of design, DS Littlemore would be in charge of supervision and Lionel Todd would be in charge of documents.

Nine days later, on 28 April 1966, Jørn Utzon and his family flew out of Australia. They boarded their plane just minutes before the doors closed, successfully avoiding the press. On the way back to Europe they stopped off at Yucatan to visit the Mayan temples that had inspired his vision for Bennelong Point. In his luggage was an incomplete set of the Stage Three drawings. Utzon had told his staff that Hughes would eventually realise the Opera House could not be completed without him and that he expected to be back within two years. 

But Utzon was never invited back to finish the project. An artist who was unwilling to see his vision compromised, he would never return to Australia to see how his building had been completed by others. Utzon’s unrealised ideal would haunt the Opera House, the more perfect for remaining unrealised.

Ove Arup

When Utzon withdrew from the Sydney Opera House project - forced to resign, as he saw it, by the Minister for Public Works – Ove Arup found himself in the very difficult position of having to decide whether to support Utzon and in so doing also resign from the project.

The government sought assurances this would not happen, but the issue affected Arup deeply – it became a philosophical crisis and a complex intersection between personal and professional behaviour and ideals.

Although a division had been growing for some time, the outcome permanently estranged the two friends and eminent colleagues.

Years later, a mutual friend of both men, structural engineer Povl Ahm, took Arup to Hellebæk. Leaving Arup in a hotel room, he went alone to see Utzon at his home in the hope of reuniting old friends, but Utzon refused to see Arup.

The two men met one last time in 1978, at a reception in London for Utzon, who had won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, at which point they shook hands and spoke a few words to each other. But the meeting was brief, characterised by the sense of loss felt by both men. 

Read ‘The Interiors’

Peter Hall appointed as the new architect

Next Chapter

Peter Hall with glass model. Image: R.L. Stewart/Fairfax Syndication